Lead singer Robert Plant shrieks, “Woman. You need. Loooooooove...” And as he does, riders scream as the car falls from a height of 155 feet, reaching speeds of 65 mph.
Welcome to Hard Rock Park, America’s newest theme park and the first major park built in the nation in a decade. Here the theme is not movies or fairy tales or water shows. It’s that American invention, rock ‘n’ roll.
The $400 million park in the heart of South Carolina’s $16 billion tourism industry had a soft opening in April that it called a “sound check.” The grand opening is slated for June 2-3, with concerts by the Eagles and The Moody Blues.
As has Led Zeppelin, both groups have lent their names to key attractions at the 55-acre park built around a lake dominated by 70-foot replica of a Les Paul guitar.
The Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane” roller coaster spins through what appears to be an abandoned saw mill as the hit song plays. “Nights in White Satin, The Trip” winds through the dark amid psychedelic lights and images set to the 1960s Moody Blue’s hit.
Nearby looms a reproduction of the Statue of Liberty with sun glasses, and holding not a torch, but a Zippo cigarette lighter. Engraved on the pedestal is a quote from Neil Young: “Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World.” The park also hosts nightly fireworks shows choreographed to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and one of its eateries is called Alice’s Restaurant, after the Arlo Guthrie song.
The park is the first foray by Hard Rock, best known for its cafes, into the amusement park business.
“We realized everybody had done movie parks,” said Steven Goodwin, the park’s chief executive officer. “Why do something everyone else has done in Orlando and Paramount parks around the country? We just thought rock ‘n’ roll was a natural.”
Building a theme park around music guarantees an audience from children to seniors.
“Music is one of those things that connects emotionally with us,” he said. “You hear a song and you immediately have a memory or a related emotional experience. That’s what we’re trying to create here.”
“What younger kids have been exposed to is very eclectic because of the Internet and the iPod,” said Jon Binkowski, the park’s chief creative officer.
“Younger kids have been exposed to be the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and things like that.”
The park is divided into areas such as British Invasion, which features the bus the Beatles used in the film “Magical Mystery Tour.”
Among the other areas are Cool Country, Born in the USA and even Rock and Roll Heaven, where the names of 350 musicians playing in that big concert hall in the sky are engraved bricks and stone as a memorial.
Visitors can see swimmers and divers perform in a show called “Malibu Beach Party,” play arcade games such as Whack-A-Boys-Band — similar to Whac-a-Mole — and catch live musical performances throughout the park.
All the while, rock music from different eras plays seamlessly through the park’s elaborate sound system.
“You can layer rock ‘n’ roll over a theme park. It’s just a natural,” Binkowski said. “Music makes a connection that a movie doesn’t. Movies continually have to tap back into music to get their flavor and their soul.”
Hard Rock is the first major new park built in the nation in a decade, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. There are about 400 amusement parks in the United States.
Hard Rock hopes to attract 30,000 visitors a day and about 3 million a year.
But industry consultant Dennis Speigel wonders if Hard Rock can make those numbers in a troubled economy and when the industry is saturated with attractions.
“It’s a very hefty price at $400 million and the projections they have published are very ambitious,” he said. “Very few theme parks, with the exception of a handful, and primarily the Disney and the Universal Parks, have ever opened exceeding 2 million people in the first year.”
There’s a theme park within a 2¬? hour drive of most major metropolitan areas, added Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services based in Cincinnati.
“The people coming to Myrtle Beach probably have a major theme park close to them, whether they are coming from Canada or coming from Charlotte,” he said. “I don’t know if there is anything there that absolutely tips the scales in favor of somebody saying ‘I can’t leave Myrtle Beach without going there.’”
But for Chad Frisbie, of Rumford, Maine, who visited recently, Hard Rock was the reason for flying to Myrtle Beach.
“We looked online and saw this was a new theme park and that’s what we based the vacation on,” he said, as he got off the Led Zeppelin coaster. “This was the one thing I wanted to check out and I’m glad I did.”
Binkowski said there will be plenty of potential guests.
“There are 14 million visitors who come to Myrtle Beach and 13 million of them are families,” he said. After the family goes to the beach and eats out and plays miniature golf, they will want to spend the day at a theme park, he predicted. “We built this for the family.”
Goodwin said he believes that Hard Rock may be more attractive to visitors than continuing south to Florida theme parks.
“We’re 500 miles closer to the major population centers of the Northeast,” he said. “At $3.50 a gallon, that’s a big amount of money when you add it up. Plus there are a lot more affordable motels in Myrtle Beach.”
Hard Rock opens about a year and a half after Myrtle Beach’s oceanfront Pavilion amusement park closed. The roller coasters and arcades there were part of the fabric of this beach community for more than half a century.
Unlike the Pavilion, which usually closed around Labor Day, Hard Rock plans to open its gates during the spring and fall shoulder seasons.
“We’ll do Rocktoberfest, we’ll do Halloween and we’re looking to do Christmas,” Goodwin said. “I think between us working with Myrtle Beach and selling ourselves that time of year, we’ll be able to bring people in.”
Back at the Statue of Liberty, there’s another attraction, one of the park employees. Brian Glenn with his purple-streaked shock of hair, seems to be having as much fun as the visitors.
“I can wear my tattoos out. I can wear my piercings. I just get to run around and be myself,” he said. “I tell them why I’m here, they start getting into it and we have a blast.”
Associated Press photo
Visitors ride The Led Zeppelin roller coaster ride at Hard Rock Park Wednesday, April 23, 2008, in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The new Hard Rock Park celebrates its grand opening June 2-3 with concerts by The Eagles and The Moody Blues.
Fact BoxIf You Go...
HARD ROCK PARK: 211 George Bishop Parkway, Myrtle Beach, S.C., http://www.hardrockpark.com or 843-236-7625. Soft opening hours through May 8, 4 p.m.-10 p.m. Beginning May 9, open daily 10 a.m.-1 a.m., $50 per person (free for children under 3). Annual pass, $150. Grand opening June 2, with Eagles concert, for which separate tickets must be purchased at $284.88.